When I was in New Zealand, I was pressed for time and I had to choose between two Sounds on the South Island. It was not an easy decision. Milford Sound is visited by thousands of tourists every year and for good reason: it’s stunning. Doubtful Sound is ten times less famous and ten times as big.
I think I made the right decision…
As New Zealand enthusiast Amanda at A Dangerous Business has rightly pointed out, Doubtful Sound has too long been overshadowed by its more famous brother, Milford Sound.
In order to get to Doubtful Sound, one must ferry across Lake Manapouri (which I have since learned is home to prehistoric, slightly man-eating eels) to the Manapouri Underground Power Station, then transfer to a bus to drive 40 minutes along the length of Wilmot Pass Road through misty temperate rainforests brimming with prehistoric-sized ferns to the wharf at Doubtful Sound, where one may then take a 3-4 hour cruise out through the Sound to the Tasman Sea.
Warning: learning may result from reading the following paragraph. The underground power station, which definitely looks like a James Bond villain’s lair, produces 15% of New Zealand’s power, 85% of which is used by an aluminum smelting facility in Bluff. The hollowed-out 2 km tunnel leading into the station was pretty impressive. The tunnel took 2 years to build and because the rock was mostly quartz and granite (i.e. super hard), they had to blast it out the entire way! Trivia fact: the rubble was used to pave the Wilmot Pass Road.
Second warning: learning may also result from reading this paragraph. The Sound itself is not actually a Sound (a drowned river valley taken over by the sea once the glacier retreats), but rather a Fjord (land carved by glacier, filled in by sea). Doubtful Sound’s water comes from 3 places. First, the Tasman Sea. Second, the 5-9m of monthly rainfall that the temperate rainforest filters it to the ground to travel via hundreds of streams of waterfalls carrying the rainwater to the Sound’s basin. Third, the power station diverts the water from Lake Manapouri that churns its turbines to generate electricity through the mountain into a manmade river that empties into Deep Cove, the harbour for Doubtful Sound.
See kids? Learning is the best!
I was a wee bit disappointed to arrive at Lake Manapouri, the launch point for Doubtful Sound, on a dreary, rainy morning. The weather in Fjordland is notoriously wet, fickle and unpleasant. Fortunately, the initial weather conditions were meaningless. The weather on the Sound blows in from the Tasman Sea and changes every few hours. This proved exactly the case, with the weather being rainy when we embarked, misty as we neared the Tasman Sea, and then clearing up into a lovely sunny afternoon. The only environmental constant in Doubtful Sound were the swarms of sandflies, the curse of Fjordland. Sandflies are so unrelenting that they have overthrown mosquitoes as my most hated flying insect.
I spent a glorious 4 hours cruising through the steep towering fjord cliffs, being buffeted by Tasman Sea winds, and seeing all kinds of nature up close and personal, without any crowds. There was one other boat on the Sound that afternoon. One.
So much of this place has to be seen to be believed. It is so quiet and remote that you feel like you have reached the end of the world. Or possibly the beginning of time.
Frankly, it would not surprise me if someone discovered live dinosaurs in this neck of the woods. How cool would that be?**
**Note: less cool if the surviving dinosaurs are giant carnivores. See: Jurassic Park, the movie. For reasons why we should not then try to transplant them to other continents, see Jurassic Park 2.